The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to read and write while you were growing up?
Mira Reisberg (MR): My parents were Holocaust survivors who taught us that the only things that couldn’t be taken away from you are the things that you carry inside; things like heart and creativity. We were also raised to help make the world a better place and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to do a little of this in my former job as a university professor and through both making and helping others make children’s books.
TWM: What attracted you to picture books?
MR: I survived the difficulties of my childhood by going to the library and also by drawing. While most things were 3rd or 4th hand by the time I got them, even though we were poor, my parents didn’t skimp on books or art supplies. As an adult, I fell into illustrating from an exhibition that I had that my former publisher saw. It was really edgy work but she invited me to illustrate children’s picture books and it changed my life. I learned that it really is never to late to have a happy childhood. From there I began writing and then I went and did a Ph.D. studying children’s books. Picture books combine so many great loves for me on so many levels — intellectually in exploring the subtle but deep themes often embedded in the images and words, creatively in either creating or helping others create or in admiring the creativity that goes into other’s work, viscerally on enjoying the humor, beauty, skill, and/or heart in picture books. Now that we’re making a chapter book course for Children’s Book Academy, I’m falling in love with chapter books. They still have some pictures but are much more language-driven for that magical age when kids decide whether they are going to be readers or not.
TWM: How did you develop your classes and your following?
MR: I taught in universities for six years and then decided that it wasn’t for me so I started the Academy. Fortunately I had a 25-year background in the industry working as an art director, an independent editor, a designer and as a writer and illustrator constantly taking courses to improve my skills. I had also taught extensively in non-academic environments. I have a weird love of tech plus expertise in teaching from my Ph.D. training so it was this quirky mix of skills that all came together. Initially the school was called the Picture Book Academy but since then it has morphed into the Children’s Book Academy offering courses in more than just picture books. This year I am training experts to develop and take over courses so that I can focus more on agenting. I like to think that I developed my following from my work and from being generous with as much as I can.
TWM: Great that Karen Grencik offered to mentor you! What would you say the biggest learnings have been for as an agent?
MR: How incredibly hard it is. How much work it is. How little it pays. How hard and heartbreaking it is saying no to people. How long it takes to actually sell work. All big shockers. The other side is how incredibly gratifying it is helping birth wonderful books and getting to work with clients in an ongoing manner. Karen is an exquisite mentor and I feel very blessed.
TWM: What are the most common mistakes PB writers make?
MR: Not taking their writing seriously enough by studying their craft, taking lots of courses, making multiple revisions, and getting it critiqued before submitting. Also writing in rhyme when they haven’t studied the form (heads up for our outstanding upcoming poetry course with PB poetry queen Sudipta Barhan-Quallen). And finally not editing for brevity. Picture books are becoming shorter and shorter for younger children with more interest in chapter books happening for 2ndgrade up, although plenty of picture books for K-4thgrade are still being published.
TWM: What are you looking for as an agent?
MR: I would love to find a hilarious Jewish writer who has really studied their craft and who writes non-religious, non-Holocaust related children’s books infused with Jewish culture and humor for a broad audience.
TWM: Please comment on where you see the market for Jewish-themed children’s books.
MR: I think that there’s a fabulous audience for brilliantly-written, highly original Jewish-themed children’s literature in mainstream publishing. Especially funny stuff. Think of Jerry Seinfeld, John Stewart, Bette Midler, Larry David but for children. Lemony Snickett, Ezra Stein, Daniel Pinkwater, and Gary Clement are Jewish children’s authors whose books have all done really well with secular markets.
Many non-Jews are fascinated by Jewish culture while many editors happen to be Jewish and would love to see themselves reflected. The key is to not be too niche by tapping into universal themes that affect all children while hopefully writing something exquisite that hasn’t been done before with distinctly Jewish characters and a captivating writer’s voice.
About Mira Reisberg
Mira Reisberg has a Ph.D. in Education and Cultural Studies. She is also the founder/director of the Children’s Book Academy, which uses a pedagogy of pleasure to provide in-depth university-level courses at a fraction of the price. With the success of her students, Mira was encouraged to become an agent and founded Hummingbird Literary. She is now transitioning out of teaching to focus on agenting. Mira has worked as an art director, illustrator, consulting editor and author for over 25 years.